'We need a backup revenue model or an organised system to support theatre during a pandemic' — B Charles, Chennai Art Theatre

Chennai Art Theatre is waiting to gear up for its annual CAT Fringe and Theatre Binge festivals that are scheduled to be held later this year 
Kathirvelan Kanaku
Kathirvelan Kanaku

B Charles of Chennai Art Theatre avers the case of a support system for all people involved in the making of a play, starting from the director to the backstage crew. While reminding us that there are broadly two categories of theatre artistes, the ones who solely depend on the stage for daily bread will be the most hit during this pandemic, he feels. As his group continues with virtual rehearsals for their annual festivals coming up later this year, we speak with Charles to find out his thoughts on the effect of this pandemic on theatre and what changes need to be brought in to be better prepared in the future. Excerpts:

Theatre organisations around the world are releasing their content online and making them available to the public. From your point of view, how much digital access does Chennai's audience have to your content, and what more can be done from your side to broaden the scope, with regards to both quantity of your body of work online and its reach among the masses?

I have been watching the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, National Theatre, Ranga Shankara and several other premier theatre organisations putting up online content. I feel theatre is a live medium and to capture it on video (in an effective way) requires a vision and planning of a different kind. Also, Chennai seems to have an overload of content through other mediums like films, and to compete with that quantity and quality of content is a challenge.

Although there are multiple online events and festivals, there is a lot of activity for free, with no revenue coming in.  This itself is not good for theatre in the long run, which already suffers from a lack of an organised revenue model.

I feel these are issues that need to be addressed 'along with' finding creative ways to engage with the theatre-loving fraternity.

In what ways and how much can this pandemic and the lockdown affect the theatre industry? 

So many shows and festivals have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely! Imagine the months of planning, rehearsals that have gone down the drain. 

There are broadly two types of actors - one who hold regular jobs and do theatre as a hobby, and the other who are full-time actors teaching and performing throughout the year. The latter are badly hit.

Other people associated with theatre - light and sound technicians, set designers, costume designers, backstage crew - all of whom depend on revenue on a 'per project' basis, have taken the brunt of this shutdown. Sadly, there is no proper system that can support these people in times of crisis like this.

Venues are vacant and have lost a lot of revenue with no bookings for some months to go. There is no backup revenue model or an organised system to support the industry at such times; no union or organisation for representing the theatre fraternity and disburse funds, plus help in other ways. Of course, there is zero support from the govt to performing arts in general, least of all to theatre. Maybe it's time to address these concerns seriously.

What are the major changes that you are anticipating in Chennai's theatre scene, once things get better? Will there be a change in approach towards the medium of showcasing your work? Can we expect to see more innovative ways in which you can reach your audience (virtual and augmented reality for example)? 

We do not know when people will come back into auditoriums; even after the lockdown is eased, the last priority on people's minds will be the performing arts. So, not only will getting the audience back will take some time, the revenue from ticket sales will be a big question mark.

The already limited support we get from corporates will be lesser due to the economic crisis. Companies that are taking the blow will not be able to budget for shows - how will we cover expenses of hosting or producing performances? Everything will be affected in a cycle.

Theatre is a live experience - it will be a challenge to take it to the virtual medium, especially competing with other forms like movies and stand up comedy. Having said that, I'd say necessity is the mother of invention. Maybe this is the time to get our creative ideas rolling on how to get theatre up on the virtual platform - at least as an experiment.

Do you have any new productions in the pipeline? And, what will be the first play from your stable once the ball gets rolling again?

CAT does have its annual line up ready (The Fringe in July and Theatre Binge in Oct-Nov) as always but we are still not sure of anything, given the uncertainty around us. 

CAT has been working on staging a play by award-winning actor/director David Hansen, that we had planned for June, 2020. Directed by Denver Antony Nicholas, rehearsals are on 'virtually'. We will wait to stage this after the pandemic clears up.

Lastly, how have you been spending your lockdown time at home? Could you share some interesting anecdotes?

I wish I could say that I have had a few million-dollar ideas or philosophical revelations and bursts of familial bonding like everybody else seems to announce on social media nowadays! 

The last few months have been incredibly hectic for me and I am using this time to get some much-needed rest for the body and soul. Hopefully, I can put it to good use once I have to get back on my feet - hopefully soon!

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